Migrant Workers in the Gulf:

The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – are a global hotspot for labor migration. With some of the highest proportions of migrant to local workers in the world, migrant workers form the backbone of Gulf economies, working in sectors such as construction, hospitality, and domestic work.

The legal and sociopolitical landscape in Gulf countries systematically marginalize workers on multiple levels. First, migrant workers are subject to the kafala (sponsorship) system, a collection of immigration and employment laws rooted in the British colonial era. The system ties workers to individual employers, affording them significant power over a worker’s mobility and legal status within the country. Second, restrictions on civic space, trade unions, and collective mobilization severely curtail migrants’ labor agency and their ability to claim or defend their rights in situations of labor exploitation.

Finally, language barriers, racial and caste-based discrimination, and physical isolation – workers are segregated from much of society due to the location of their work sites and labor camps – can keep workers unaware of their rights, unable to access health care or support services, and in fear of police and other officials. Many of these risks are amplified for female migrant workers due to harsher restrictions on their freedom of movement and association, as well as additional risks of gender-based violence and abuse and the lack of workplace and social protections in sectors like domestic work.

Labor Migration between Nepal and Qatar

In 2010, Qatar was awarded the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup, necessitating massive infrastructure development in the country. The corporations contracted by the Qatari government and local World Cup organizing committee to oversee the construction and staffing of the stadiums, as well as the transportation and accommodation projects needed for the mega-sporting event, have recruited millions of workers from South Asia and, increasingly, East and West Africa. Currently, there are more than two million migrants working and living in Qatar on temporary, employer-tied contracts, accounting for more than 95 percent of Qatar’s total workforce.

According to estimates, Nepali migrant workers make up 12.5 percent of Qatar’s entire population. Nepal’s economy is heavily dependent on outward labor migration, with remittances making up almost a third of the country’s GDP. The Arab Gulf States are a major destination for Nepali migrant workers, hosting 65% of all Nepalis who migrate for work outside of Nepal and India. The spotlight of the tournament and the work required to prepare for it has led to sustained international attention on the exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar, and particularly on the labor abuse of Nepalis employed in the country’s construction sector.

The experience of aspiring Nepali migrant workers seeking employment in Qatar typifies the journeys many labor migrants make between their homes and Gulf countries. Migrant workers often rely on recruitment agencies to connect them to overseas employers, as well as labor brokers, who serve as intermediaries between workers and recruitment agencies. Recruitment agencies and intermediaries routinely charge excessive and illegal recruitment fees for access to jobs, pressuring workers to take out high-interest loans, sell property, or borrow money from family members. As a result, workers are saddled with large amounts of debts before they arrive in the country of destination. Once there, it is common for employers to seize passports and engage in contract substitution, where a worker’s job description, working hours, and renumeration may be significantly altered from the original offer to the detriment of the worker. Wage theft is also rampant, and without effective mechanisms to change jobs or recoup their owed wages, many migrants find themselves in debt bondage, forced to endure abusive working and living conditions for uncertain pay, or return home in financial debt.

As recruiters and employers of migrant workers, construction and hospitality companies involved in preparations for the World Cup, including Western brands, bear a responsibility to respect the rights of migrant workers. Both sectors rely on heavily contracted, opaque supply chains that shift responsibility for labor rights down the supply chain and profit from business models that fail to account for the true cost of labor. While the construction and hospitality sectors have generally escaped the scrutiny that has driven change in other global industries like food and apparel, the global spotlight and the weak regulatory landscape in the Nepal-Qatar migration corridor has attracted attention to practices in both sectors in recent years.

This public attention to the issue has helped spur Qatar’s government to institute changes to its labor laws, including the dismantling of some of the main elements of the kafala system, notably the no-objection certificate and the requirement for migrant workers to obtain exit permits to change jobs and leave the country. Qatar has also introduced a minimum wage and a domestic workers’ law.

While labor laws for migrants have improved on paper, the outcomes of the policy reforms remain to be seen. Civil society and advocacy groups continue to document how many problematic practices persist. Qatar’s recent arrest of activists and journalists covering migrant worker issues has had a reported chilling effect on workers and laws governing freedom of expression and association remain highly restrictive. Qatar has an opportunity to be a regional leader by implementing and enforcing its legal reforms and allowing migrant workers to speak out without fear of retribution. In the lead up to and beyond the World Cup, success must be measured in tangible changes to workers’ direct lived experience.

Nepal has also sought to improve its labor migration governance and the conditions under which workers migrate, yet similarly, implementation of their policy reforms remains a challenge. In 2015, the government adopted a “free-visa, free-ticket” policy, stipulating that employers in seven major countries of destination, including Qatar, are responsible for the costs associated with obtaining a visa and air travel. While this was welcome news to prospective migrant workers and labor advocates, attempts to regulate the country’s influential recruitment industry have proved to be unsuccessful, as many recruitment agencies’ close ties within Nepal’s political parties means they are not held to account. The policy also largely failed to consider recruitment intermediaries and the deceptive practices commonly used to pressure workers into paying recruitment fees. Other measures Nepal has introduced include the establishment of bilateral agreements requiring labor attachés in countries of destination to monitor the rights of workers and certify employment documents. Yet many of Nepal’s embassies remain under resourced and understaffed, leaving few effective mechanisms available for workers seeking legal assistance for labor abuses like nonpayment of wages or contract substitution. While the government of Nepal has devoted more attention in recent years to the protection of migrant workers domestically and within countries of destination, reforms often lack proper resources or have no realistic implementation plans.

Humanity United’s Support to Grantees

Since 2014, Humanity United has sought to leverage our grantmaking funds and strategic networks to create the conditions for safer labor migration between Nepal and Qatar. We partner with a wide range of actors, including migrant worker-led organizations, civil society groups and NGOs, journalists, policymakers, and the private sector.

Our aims have been to catalyze legal reform and regulatory action in Nepal and Qatar, incentivize and pressure for changes in corporate behavior, and promote the leadership of migrant workers in speaking out on the conditions they face. To achieve this, we support human rights and labor organizations that raise awareness of conditions for migrant workers, inform policy advocacy and public interest litigation, and seek compensation and redress when abuses take place. We work with companies and academic institutions to better understand and influence the business models that perpetuate forced labor in the recruitment, construction, and hospitality sectors and to develop and propose solutions. We also support the efforts of migrant worker networks and leaders across the Gulf to advocate for policy change in their countries of origin and at the international level.

Examples of the grantees we support in Nepal include locally-based civil society organizations like the SAMATA Foundation, which conducts policy research on the foreign employment sector and provides recommendations for protecting the rights of aspiring migrant workers, as well as strengthening the institutional capacity of Dalit leaders in order to raise awareness of caste-based discrimination and guarantee the rights of marginalized populations. We also support Shramik Sanjal, an informal network led by self-motivated, low-wage migrant workers in the Gulf and Malaysia, that aims to center the perspectives and lived experiences of migrant workers within policy and advocacy efforts to improve their conditions. Through our partnership with Nepal Investigative Multimedia Journalism Network (NIMJN), we have supported efforts to build the next generation of Nepali investigative journalists covering issues related to labor, migration, and trafficking.

To influence the private sector, we have supported the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre’s digital action platform that provides analysis of corporate abuse of migrant workers in the Gulf, with a focus on the construction and hospitality sectors, as well as the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights’ research on corporate accountability and the costs of recruitment in Qatar’s construction sector.

With limited or no local civil society or migrant worker-led organizations to advocate for legal reform and changes in Qatar, we are engaged with regional and global advocacy organizations working to raise awareness of the experiences of migrant workers and the conditions they often face. For example, our contribution to Migrant-Rights.Org supports their reporting on issues that migrant workers encounter throughout the Gulf as well as their work to engage local youth and businesses on migrant rights. We have also funded research aimed at informing policy change, like Fair Square’s Five Corridors Project on governments’ responsibility to address recruitment-related abuses, which includes specific recommendations to governments in the Nepal-Qatar and Nepal-Kuwait migration corridors.

Our Nepal-Qatar programming is complemented by grants made through our Forced Labor and Human Trafficking portfolio, which funds work on safer labor migration, corporate accountability, and worker agency in other parts of the world, and through our Independent Journalism and Media program, which grants to organizations like the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and The Guardian’s Rights and Freedom Series.

Featured work:

UNGPS 10+ Blog Series: Remedy
Our Response to the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report
Q&A with Migrant-Rights.org on Women and Forced Labor in the Gulf Region